The Chicago Reader debuted October 1, 1971—almost two years before DJ Kool Herc threw the very first hip-hop party in the Bronx in August 1973, nearly three years before the Ramones made their first appearance onstage at CBGB in August 1974, and more than five years before Frankie Knuckles first spun at the Warehouse in March 1977. The Reader arrived around six years after a group of visionary Black Chicagoans founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and just as rock ’n’ roll entered its pimply, sentimental adolescence—in October 1971, Don McLean released American Pie, the title track of which pays homage to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper while mourning a rosy ideal of rock’s salad days.
For decades, music coverage has been a huge part of the Reader’s footprint. When the paper was at its largest, with four thick sections of quarterfolded broadsheet, it devoted one to film, books, galleries, theater, dance, and other performing arts—and one entirely to music. The depth and variety of this coverage has also set it apart. The Reader has had something to say about music that thrived generations before its existence, music that emerged under its gaze, and music that the paper’s own advocacy helped elevate to a civic and cultural position it had long deserved.
In a Reader city guide published October 1, 1976, critic Jim O’Neal took the local government to task for neglecting the gift the blues had given Chicago. “City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce have yet to admit that the blues is a tourist attraction, or anything for Chicagoans to recognize at all,” he wrote. “Here in Chicago, where live blues activity outstrips that of any other city, official recognition is nonexistent, media coverage is scant, and countless blues musicians are struggling to get out of town—or out of the country—where someone will appreciate their art.” Eight years later, the city held the first annual Chicago Blues Festival.
O’Neal’s comprehensive, analytical essay ran in that 1976 issue alongside similar deep-tissue treatments of the city’s rock, jazz, and folk scenes. O’Neal wasn’t the only writer convinced that the genre he loved didn’t enjoy the high profile it deserved, but I suspect that the intensity of that love meant that few media outlets could’ve met his standards. After all, in 1970 he’d addressed the shortcomings of blues coverage head-on by cofounding his own magazine, Living Blues, now recognized as the oldest such publication in the country.
These Reader guides didn’t simply take the temperature of a scene by rattling off the names of its best-known figures and its most popular venues; they expended a lot of energy evoking the joys and frustrations of experiencing the music in public. I felt a pang of recognition reading John Milward’s snapshot of the Aragon Ballroom in the rock guide, though the music he mentions has little overlap with what’s drawn me there:
“Acoustically, the Aragon runs from tolerable to horrible, but for most of the kids who make it into the Arabian-motifed ballroom built in the days of Capone, it’s the scene that counts—hanging out, smoking, and rolling home in the wee hours with your brain cells ringing from Johnny Winter’s twenty-minute metallic rave-up encore or with your eyes burned out from the Blue Oyster Cult’s Star Trek laser show.”
The Reader’s city guides were works of criticism intended to lead their audiences out into the world to experience art anew. Reading them in 2021, I lost myself trying to keep track of all the venues that had closed before I was born and all the people who’d run them, most of whom are gone too. Longtime Reader writer Neil Tesser made Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal feel as multidimensional in his 1976 jazz-scene guide as he did in his August 2020 obituary.
This sort of thing happens to me every time I go digging through the Reader print archives in search of music stories—I’ll get sidetracked reading the concert calendars in the venue ads or stumble across a paragraph-long show preview for an obscure artist I’m pleasantly surprised to see written about back before they were forgotten. And even if I were laser focused every moment, I would need several years of research (and a generous advance) to write a definitive history of the Reader’s vast body of music coverage. Book publishers: Hello!
The paper’s 50th anniversary has given me the opportunity to make a start of the job, though. For this retrospective I didn’t want to celebrate the already celebrated pieces, or even my own favorites—which include Bill Wyman’s “Skinheads,” Monica Kendrick’s “Bang the Head Slowly,” J.R. Jones’s “Ska’s Lost Cause,” several Jake Austen deep dives, and every Reader story Jessica Hopper included in the new edition of her essential book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. I shouldn’t spend a special occasion talking about why these stories are important to me, because I already do it all the time.
I began contributing to the Reader 11 years ago, and I’ve learned firsthand how much time and care goes into every music story, no matter how small or ephemeral. Three-hundred-word concert previews, for example, don’t tend to get anthologized or mythologized, but over the past decade Reader editors Philip Montoro, Kevin Warwick, and Jamie Ludwig have spent a Herculean amount of time and effort ensuring that these brief, idiosyncratic write-ups do more than simply tell readers which musicians are playing which week.
Even in that limited space, a great critic can push you to think deeper about music, get you excited about an unfamiliar artist, or knock a canonized pop star off his pedestal. I still chuckle when I remember J.R. Nelson’s Paul McCartney preview from 2014: “His milquetoast musical gewgaws (have you endured ‘Penny Lane’ lately?) have been rammed into my ears like broken Q-tips over and over for decades,” he wrote. “And I can only assume he meant them to sound that way—to be the blandest guy in a band with Ringo Starr, you’ve got to work at it, right?”
Elsewhere in the paper, of course, Reader writers have famously been given plenty of room to spread out, and that’s stayed true even as the page count has shrunk. (I’ve written some of my longest stories this year.) To comb through 50 years of music coverage, I had to rein in my impulse to be as comprehensive as possible. So I devised a constraint for myself: I would look only at Reader music stories printed in the first October issue of every year.
I knew this would diminish my ability to speak definitively about the paper’s history or pinpoint in retrospect the moments when the Reader uplifted artists who were about to become famous—and I found that freeing. For one thing, music journalism doesn’t exist to predict the emergence of marketable stars, and suggesting otherwise devalues music and journalism.
Mostly I wanted to take in the writing as a reader might have. I learned a lot about Chicago and even more about the paper, and I noticed themes and perspectives that recurred across generations. On October 4, 1996, Rick Reger reviewed an unlikely pair of albums—a Rhino prog-rock compilation called Supernatural Fairy Tales and the Rachel’s album The Sea and the Bells—and picked up on similar wavelengths in 1970s prog and 1990s postrock. Part of his kicker stuck with me: “What remains to be seen is which post rockers will one day be compared to effete windbags like Seventh Wave and Rare Bird and which will measure up to substantive adventurers like Quiet Sun and Van der Graaf Generator. One thing is certain: it doesn’t pay to dismiss your predecessors as irrelevant.”
Music was barely present in the Reader’s first issue, but it made the front page on October 6, 1972, with a review of a Chuck Berry concert headlined “Rock & Roll Will Never Die.” (That 1972 issue is one of several in my survey with a music story on the cover—among the other stories to get that treatment are Peter Schwendener’s 1984 piece about quarrelsome rock-club promoter Ben Vinci, Grant Pick’s 1989 profile of revered Lutheran church organist Paul Manz, and Jake Austen’s 2008 history of the 1970s local version of Soul Train.) Cary Baker and Harlan Hollander began their minute-by-minute show report by thumbing their noses at the moral panics that had dogged rock ’n’ roll: “This means of promoting illegitimate births and suicides, rock & roll, drew a record crowd to the Aragon last Saturday,” they wrote. “That juicy, sexy, earthy, slurpy, meaty, greasy true music of youth was all around.”
Most of the music coverage I saw from those early years fit into three categories: live reviews, profiles, and album reviews. The live reviews tended to run longest—writers often stretched their imaginations to do more than capture what happened onstage. Maybe it’s all the long days on my feet I’ve put in at music festivals, but I found myself drawn to passages about the aches and pains of waiting hours in a venue for something to happen.
In 1975, Neil Tesser spent a night at WTTW’s Soundstage when it broadcast a marathon tribute to talent scout and record producer John Hammond, who’d helped launch the careers of Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and many others. The night promised to be historic, but Tesser had a tough time focusing on that. “By the time we left the studio the next morning, my sense of history was largely a consciousness of the seven hours I had spent at WTTW,” he wrote. “I don’t usually spend that much time sleeping, let alone sitting in some strange TV studio.”
In a 1979 review of performances by the Knack and the Record, Don McLeese went long on the fuzzy border between rock and a subset of rock that he defined as “pop,” at a time when both were dominated by straight white men playing guitars. “While delineating pop from other rock can be a hair-splitting, life-draining exercise, one that ultimately results in more contradictions than conclusions, a few guidelights can at least illuminate the extremes,” he wrote. “Rock is muscle; pop is heart. Rock is five-o’clock shadow; pop is peach fuzz. Rock is gruff and gritty; pop is unabashedly sentimental. Rock is streetwise, citified; pop is suburban. Rock takes you by force; pop only wants to hold your hand, and let true love take its course (pop believes in nothing if not romance). Rock is prematurely macho; pop is perpetually adolescent. Rock thunders; pop bounces. Shades of difference: rock is a Dave Edmunds guitar solo; pop is a Nick Lowe vocal overdub. At the boundary, Cheap Trick straddles the line better than anyone. Where the most melodic rock meets the hardest-edged pop, there is no distinction.”
I’m fond of interrogating what makes genres distinct, but I became a professional critic in a post-Internet era when microgenres began proliferating like mushrooms. In the past decade or so, the Reader has run stories on seapunk, footwork, vaporwave, hyperpop, and fourth-wave emo. Genres are defined as much by the communities who incubate them as by their sounds, and the Reader has long offered critics the space to drill down into the meaning and limitations of such designations. Here’s Tesser on the umbrella term “jazz” in his 1976 scene guide: “To begin with, I use the term advisedly; there are too many ballpoint-happy indignateurs around this burg who noisily declaim its use at all.”
When the Reader covered specific acts, particularly in the concert previews called “Critic’s Choices” (I came across them first in October 1985), those condensed, informative pieces were often insidery in a friendly way—a reminder that the “alt-” in “alt-weekly” is short for “alternative,” an invocation of a loose nonmainstream community that the paper claimed as its own. Before the Internet fragmented media monoculture (the U.S. had just three broadcast TV networks until 1986), opposition to that monoculture was a more meaningful gesture, and it could help bind people together. Drawing on that presumed bond, Reader writers sometimes addressed their audience with a sense of camaraderie, as though sending tips to a longtime pen pal. Bill Wyman exemplified this in his October 1988 Camper Van Beethoven preview: “Live, the Campers provide something akin to a heavy-metal hoedown—but you knew that.”
Longtime Reader classical critic Ted Shen, who passed away in 2003, prized accessibility in his writing and studiously avoided pretension—he clearly wanted to open the ears of people with no grasp of classical music, instead of speaking only to the already initiated. I’m particularly fond of this passage from his review of the Chicago String Ensemble at Saint Paul’s Church, published October 3, 1980: “As for the other two works, by contemporary composers Lars-Erik Larsson and A. Oscar Haugland, I thought that the composers’ names would look nice emblazoned on a new line of Scandinavian furniture,” he wrote. “As it turned out, my first impression had its point, for their compositions have the serviceable and pleasant quality of a cozy armchair. But they are rather modest compared to the more enduring and valued Chippendales of music.”
Beginning in 1993, the paper ran Critic’s Choices alongside a column that collected roughly a dozen shorter previews under the name “Spot Check.” (Longtime Reader critic Peter Margasak originated the column as a freelancer, and he wrote the first one I found near the start of his 23-year tenure as a staffer.) Monica Kendrick soon took over Spot Check, writing it regularly till it was retired during a 2004 redesign of the paper. In October 1998 she used the column to talk about hyperactive Japanese noise-rock oddballs Melt-Banana, and about noise and rock more broadly: “Contrary to oft-expressed opinion, Melt-Banana doesn’t sound like rock from another planet—it merely demonstrates how big this one really is.”
Of course, writing about what an artist sounds like is only a fraction of music journalism—and it’s an even smaller fraction now that streaming has made it easy to dispense with wordy descriptions and just let readers listen for themselves. History is important too, and I dug up some front-of-book stories next to the Reader’s events calendar that gave me thorough lessons: Ted Shen’s 1995 profile of Black Chicago composer Maurice Weddington, or Florence Hamlish Levinsohn’s 1988 preview of a documentary on midcentury jazz phenoms Ernestine “Tiny” Davis and Ruby Renei Phelan Lucas made by the directors of Before Stonewall.
And when Reader writers got all the space in the world to unpack the role music plays in community, memory, commerce, and art, I was always struck by the many directions a single big story could take. Bill Wyman’s 1988 essay “Reading: Lennon Mania” addresses a recent rash of books cashing in on the former Beatle’s legacy, most notably Albert Goldman’s brutal biography The Lives of John Lennon, but it’s much bigger than that. Wyman’s own unvarnished look at the artist’s life has nuance and verve (though it’s hard to excuse the venom he directs at Yoko Ono) and thoughtfully considers the extent to which posthumous projects tarnished the legacy of Lennon’s best work.
Other Reader writers have wrestled with similar questions. Nostalgia and financial necessity collide in Sam McPheeters’s 2010 essay on Articles of Faith, occasioned by the Chicago hardcore band’s one-off reunion for Riot Fest: “Reuniting a hardcore band isn’t exactly the path to prosperity,” he wrote. “What drives grown men to seek and reseek these fleeting bits of former glory? Do they feel their lives lack adventure? Are they having midlife crises? Can they not find any other way to spend time with old friends? These aren’t hypothetical questions; I genuinely wish I knew the answers.” His questions also reminded me of Jessica Hopper’s excellent Reader essays on reissues by Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana (from April 2005 and September 2011, respectively).
Peter Margasak’s first big piece in my sample, a review of a 1994 Veruca Salt record-release show at Lounge Ax, lambasts the state of music journalism during the alternative boom. “One expects label reps to have dollar signs for eyes, but the music press has always worked under the notion that it was looking for bands that would become successful artistically, not those who’d become financially successful,” he wrote. “Now music writers are becoming like art investors: more concerned with the bottom line than with lines and shapes.” On drums for Veruca Salt that night? Jim Shapiro, who would go on to serve as Reader music editor in 2003 and ’04.
Shapiro is hardly the only Reader employee who’s also been a story subject. Many alt-weekly staffers maintain creative lives outside the paper, and for most of the time I’ve worked here at least one of my colleagues has been an active musician. Cary Baker, who’d coauthored that Chuck Berry review in 1972, turned up in a 1989 Bill Wyman calendar feature as a subject—Baker was then the publicity director of Capitol, and appeared as a special guest at the Midwest Music Conference. And in 2005, Bob Mehr wrote about Baker launching his new Conjuroo label with a reissue of a 1973 Blind Arvella Gray album.
Reader writer Liz Armstrong was in some ways also a story subject, because her Chicago Antisocial columns often detailed her own occasionally reckless and always improbable adventures in Chicago’s weirdo nightlife scene. Her unerring sense for the odd, transcendent, kitschy, hilarious, revolting, or just plain fun made her writing distinctive, even in a paper full of strong voices.
Two of Armstrong’s columns turned up in my survey—2004’s “Now It’s a Party” and 2005’s “Going Off the Rails on the Ravey Train”—and if I could quote them in full, I would. I’ll settle for the exhausting opening sentences of the former: “It was one of those nights that makes you want to rush right home and shower, a night when you pop vitamins before bed in a vain attempt to stave off a hangover, a night peopled by incredibly tan, round-tittied, ashy-highlighted, shiny-lipped women in skirts so short they need two hairstyles, pursued by incredibly tan, gel-headed, waxed-chested, clear-nail-polish-manicured men in striped button-down shirts,” she wrote. “It was a regular ol’ Thursday night at Crobar, and DJ Jordan Zawideh had decided to spend his birthday there.”
The Reader has been around long enough that many of its writers and their subjects have since graduated to national stages. In October 2005, Bob Mehr wrote about Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe shortly after he released his first experimental album as Lichens; this year, Lowe scored the new Candyman film, and Mehr won a Grammy for his liner notes to the Replacements box set Dead Man’s Pop. (Neil Tesser won the same award in 2014.) Jessica Hopper became one of the most essential voices in pop criticism while simultaneously lifting up emerging voices—most recently as an editor for the University of Texas’s American Music Series, where she’s helped many stellar new music books see the light of day, including Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary by Reader contributor Sasha Geffen.
Don McLeese went on to write about pop for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Austin American-Statesman, and now teaches at University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Michaelangelo Matos, whose name first popped up in my survey in October 1999, published a definitive history of electronic music in 2015 called The Underground Is Massive, which the Reader excerpted in April of that year, and followed it up in 2020 with Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year. Keith Harris, who debuted in my sample in October 2003, worked as the Reader’s music editor for around a year in the early 2000s and later took the same job for Twin Cities alt-weekly City Pages, which shuttered last fall—Harris is one of four former City Pages editors who in August cofounded Racket, an online magazine that’s working to fill the gap left by its defunct predecessor.
Once I reached the 2010s, a third of the Reader music features I encountered were my own. I can’t reflect on those pieces without thinking of my entire history at the paper. My first Reader story, on defunct Logan Square DIY space Strangelight, ran June 24, 2010; longtime editor in chief Alison True was fired the next day. I loved the Reader’s music journalism and already read it avidly because it reflected the visions of True, managing editor Kiki Yablon, and music editor Philip Montoro; from the start, I aimed to live up to their rigorous standards.
A big part of the Reader story during my tenure has been about frequent destabilizing changes of ownership, staff layoffs and attrition, and chronic management neglect—and about resolve in the face of those difficulties. In my early years, though, the music section was still growing, at least briefly. The issue of October 6, 2011, had more music coverage than any other year in my sample: it included two newly established recurring series, the bite-size story triptych Three Beats and the tag-team show-and-tell In Rotation; a reported feature on Cave’s album Neverendless; an essay on Turntable.fm and Spotify; an interview of Bryan Ferry by Bobby Conn for the Artist on Artist series; a Secret History of Chicago Music comic on prog rockers Yezda Urfa; photos from a St. Vincent concert at Metro; the music news column Gossip Wolf; a short rundown of the upcoming Riot Fest; and the usual spread of a dozen or so show previews.
Earlier in 2011, editor in chief Mara Shalhoup and art director Paul John Higgins had made the Reader a glossy publication (it had introduced color in 2004). The music section was moved to the back of the paper, where it ran upside-down as “the B Side” and got its own cover. Judging from the testimony of the musicians I’ve gotten to know over the past ten years, the existence of that cover was a boon for the local scene—the B Side allowed the Reader to spotlight a great variety of local artists much more prominently than before, including many otherwise ignored by the press and a few future stars. Chance the Rapper, for example, refers to his B Side cover appearance on “Pusha Man,” from his 2013 mixtape Acid Rap.
A survey of 50 print issues doesn’t account for stories that appeared only online, of course, and that’s been a pretty big share of the Reader’s output for a while now. Under digital editor Tal Rosenberg, the paper beefed up its blog (which had been retitled “the Bleader” in 2011) and asked freelancers and staffers to choose regular topics to write about weekly. Margasak posted about jazz on Fridays; Montoro launched a ridiculous column called Beer and Metal that ran most Mondays; I wrote about hip-hop on Wednesdays.
Online music journalism in that era offered hope for the future on one hand and, on the other, a glut of unnecessary “content” that didn’t do anything useful except draw clicks. In my own wanderings on the Web, I encountered cheap and insubstantial listicles (which the Reader avoided), context-free slideshows (which we sometimes ran during festival season), and transparently transactional “exclusive premieres” of forthcoming music (which I stopped posting well before the trend went bust). Some of the Reader’s blog stories were little more than announcements of imminent events, and became irrelevant within days or even hours; we’ve also run lots of great online-only pieces with much longer shelf lives. I still think often of Tiffany Walden’s 2017 oral history of WGCI’s “Bad Boy Radio.”
I can’t reflect on the past decade of Reader music coverage without mentioning the Block Beat, a multimedia series in collaboration with the TRiiBE that Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson launched in February 2018. The Block Beat brought a familial intimacy to its profiles of Black Chicago musicians, combining prose, photos, and video interviews by the TRiiBE’s deep bench of collaborators. But Walden and Johnson had already helped shape our music coverage before the Block Beat—freelancers have done as much as staff to push this publication in new directions.
Our interns have too; in summer 2018 Matt Harvey, Katie Powers, Tyra Nicole Triche, and Anna White all contributed music writing and helped keep the paper afloat when it was sometimes literally in danger of shutting down the next day—the Reader’s already small editorial staff had lost nearly half a dozen people, and for months it operated without an editor in chief. Throughout this bleak period, the staff made sure we published a new issue every week no matter what—so thank you to Montoro, culture editor Aimee Levitt, graphic designer Sue Kwong, director of digital John Dunlevy, and acting deputy editor Kate Schmidt, without all of whom there might not be a Reader today. When my Sen Morimoto cover story arrived on October 4, 2018, Tracy Baim had just stepped in as publisher, and the long task of rebuilding could begin.
At that point the Reader’s staff had been whittled down to nothing but an editorial department and a single digital specialist—everyone now working in publishing, sales, marketing, administration, circulation, development, and special projects has been hired since then. Over the past three years Baim, co-editor in chief Sujay Kumar, and copublisher and co-editor in chief Karen Hawkins have done a lot to ensure that I could focus on music journalism without worrying that I’d be laid off or that the paper would fold. I like to think the goals I’ve set for myself place me in a worthwhile tradition—in fact, Reader contributor Howard Mandel, who in 2019 wrote a lovingly meticulous profile of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, summed up my outlook pretty well in his Chicago Jazz Fest diary for the issue of October 2, 1981.
“As a critic, you have to treat players with respect, and open yourself to the meaning of the music they’re making for you and your readers to hear,” Mandel wrote. “You can’t assume your readers (or their listeners) know anything, but you musn’t talk down to them, either. Put yourself in their heads, hear with their ears, gently lead them to your own understanding, and stretch that understanding of yours, too. Express your ideas and opinions, and your feelings—you must—but keep them in context. Otherwise, who cares?”